Cattle dog, owner earn national award

PJ is a blue heeler. That’s a nickname for the Australian cattle dog breed. Sara-Jo Gahm is a medical doctor, and a wife and mother. Together, PJ and Gahm are winners.

“Sara-Jo won the contest in a nail-biter,” said John Connolly, Gahm’s husband.

His wife has a shiny new belt buckle embossed with her impressive title: Australian Cattle Dog Club of America National Herding Champion 2013.

It’s a title that Gahm, 49, has won four times before, with a different dog. This year was 4-year-old PJ’s first time in the national spotlight.

They won Oct. 11 at the Australian Cattle Dog Club of America’s National Specialty competition in Norco, Calif.

The Arlington couple make their home at the gorgeous On the Lamb Farm, 75 acres of pasture and forest on the south fork of the Stillaguamish River. It’s a working farm. They raise grass-fed lamb and beef. They breed and sell sheep. And they have dogs — lots of dogs.

“We have about 12 dogs,” said Connolly, a New York City native who shoulders the farm work while his wife practices medicine in Everett. They have an 11-year-old son, Eli, who also competes with dogs in junior showmanship.

At last month’s competition in California, Connolly said, “for two days nobody got the cows through the course. The cows kept challenging the dogs, breaking back to the take-out gate. Sara-Jo was the last competitor on Friday afternoon.

“PJ worked beautifully. The cows tried to break, but he was right there — bit a nose or two if the cow challenged him,” Connolly said. “She got them through the course, the only qualifying run of the two-day trial. Everyone, including the other competitors, broke into shouts, and applause.”

At the farm, they host training sessions and herding clinics that bring together Australian cattle dog owners from around the region.

According to the American Kennel Club, the Australian cattle dog is “without peer as a cattle herder” and is “ready and willing to work all day.” The sturdily built dogs were first bred in Australia, by crossing dingo dogs with other breeds.

“This dog is thrilled to be able to work,” said Gahm, who served as president of the Australian Cattle Dog Club of America from 2003 to 2005, and before that was the club’s Northwest director.

“I got my first one just as a pet,” she said. It wasn’t long before she was deeply involved in herding, and teaching others.

Before moving to Arlington in 2002, they lived in Redmond. “We had a small herding arena,” Connolly said. It was way too small for what they have now — their dogs, 16 cows and about 60 sheep.

At the farm Wednesday, Gahm moved the cows from one pasture to an area where she and PJ demonstrated the dog’s herding skills. Gahm held a stick she called a crook, and delivered the commands PJ understands.

“Away to me” means the dog is to go counter-clockwise around the livestock. “Come by” means PJ goes clockwise around the herd. Walk up, stay, and steady are other commands. “And ‘Hey, know it off,’” she joked.

PJ also won a Conformation Championship at the California event. He surprised Gahm with his abilities. “PJ just turned 4,” said Gahm, who wasn’t sure the dog was mature enough to become the champion. She won her previous titles with a dog named Boss.

John Kurpas, of Detroit, is in charge of judge education for the Australian Cattle Dog Club of America. He explained the contest Gahm won. The dog moves cows through a pre-determined course, clockwise or counter-clockwise.

“The whole aspect is to quietly and calmly move stock from a feed pan through all the obstacles, and to keep the cows corralled in one spot,” Kurpas said.

A single judge does the scoring on a course that includes obstacles, a Y-chute, a V-chute, a hold pen, and a 90-degree turn.

Kurpas travels 50 miles to a Michigan farm to work with his dogs.

“It’s kind of a new addiction,” he said.

Gahm and her husband have other dogs — an Italian breed of big sheepdogs called Maremmas — that live in the field and guard livestock.

And PJ, too, is all business. He doesn’t sleep on the bed. He doesn’t cuddle on the couch.

“They’re high-energy dogs,” Gahm said. “They need a job.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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